- “What the Public Expect”: Consumer Authority and the Marketing of Bibles, 1770–1850
How does one hawk the pearl of great price? When they began producing bibles in the 1780s and 1790s, American printers and publishers confronted tensions central to Judeo-Christian concepts of scripture. In one sense, bibles are books like other books: paper and ink products with cost and risk attached. In another sense, though, bibles are special. Bibles are physical iterations of an idealized, authoritative Word of God that tells believers how to live, behave, and worship. Bibles have a relationship, that is, with something beyond their own paper and ink, something believed to be divine. Their physicality makes them distinct from that divine text: while that text is thought of as singular and eternal, its physical iterations are many, variable, and contingent. If they happened to be religious, early national printers, publishers, and booksellers may have thought of the Word of God as priceless, but their livelihoods meant putting prices on its physical iterations.
To sell bibles, moreover, interested parties needed to advertise them. For bibles as well as other books, printers produced much of their own advertising in the form of handbills and catalogues, but notices in periodicals were by far the most prevalent way to bring a book to the attention of the public. Advertising the selling points of an object believed to be more than an object comes with certain tensions. Bible advertising had to account for both “The Bible” as the singular, authoritative, and abstract Christian scripture as well as for the individual paper and ink artifact for sale.1 Advertising demands distinctions—one product must be made distinguishable as particularly worthwhile—yet all bibles must maintain a connection to the same unchanging, idealized model.
The earliest examples of American bible advertising focused on assuring readers of the reliability of a given bible’s text. Bible advertising was about convincing the potential buyer of a certain, secure relationship between the bible being sold and that idealized, abstract Word of God. Advertisements of this sort relied on two features to make their case: first, the approbation of some [End Page 128] authority certifying the reliability of the text, and, secondly, evidence of the printer’s reputation for both professional skill and personal integrity. The need to distinguish a particular bible as desirable was always present, though, and, in the nineteenth century, it came to dominate bible advertising. The emphasis on particularity—on the mediations present in a given bible that made it desirable—was an emphasis on the buyer’s interests: advertising abandoned assertions of accuracy in favor of strategies that recognized no authorizing agents beyond consumers themselves. While earlier advertisements had elided the mediated nature of the material text in order to suggest a transparent connection to the idealized Bible, later advertisements celebrated mediation by promoting the distinctiveness of the particular material object for sale—features such as its fine appearance, explanatory notes, and illustrations. A confluence of factors precipitated this shift. Disestablishment left a vacuum where authority to validate bibles was concerned. At the same moment, a rising consumer culture demanded that a given product be distinguishable from others, and printing technology made accuracy a less important focus for advertising.2 Although this turn did not necessarily make the text of a given bible less important to individual readers, it did mark an important shift in religious authority in America, generally, and in approaches to the bible, in particular.3 Attending to the ways in which the earliest American English bibles were advertised adds an important material dimension to the development of nineteenth-century patterns of religious authority.
The tension between the abstract, idealized Bible and its material iterations is a problem inherent to Protestantism. Reformers of the sixteenth century told laypeople to turn to “scripture alone” at the same time that they told them to turn away from the institution assumed to be responsible for ensuring scripture’s purity and interpretation—the Catholic Church.4 Stirred by a humanist impulse, the Reformers started a flood of vernacular translations of scripture from the Hebrew and Greek originals and, with it, a flood of disagreements about the proper translation...